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The Talmud Paints a Vivid Picture of Jewish Family Life in This Week’s Daf Yomi

Daf Yomi: Our literary critic discovers more rules on male authority, Shabbat meals, and how the rabbis thought about wealth

Adam Kirsch
June 04, 2013
(Photoillustration Tablet Magazine; original photo Swedish National Heritage Board/Flickr)

Literary critic Adam Kirsch is reading a page of Talmud a day, along with Jews around the world.

After a week off for Memorial Day, we return to the Talmud this week with Chapter 8 of Tractate Eruvin. This is one of those miscellaneous catch-all chapters, in which the Talmud addresses a group of minor issues branching off from the main discussion. The central subject of Eruvin so far has been the rules for legal mergers (eruv means merger) that allow Jews to extend the area in which they may move around and carry objects on Shabbat. But who, the rabbis ask in this week’s Daf Yomi reading, has the power to enter into such a merger? Who is legally competent to create an eruv?

The answer, we learn in Eruvin 82b, is that a male head of household has the power to create an eruv on behalf of his dependents—specifically, his minor children and his non-Jewish servants, who are have no standing of their own in Jewish law. In the Talmud’s words, “his hand is as their hand.” However, the rabbis exempt from this category a man’s wife and his adult children, in a way that sets Talmudic law at odds with standard practice in the Roman Empire at the time. Rome, which gave us the word “paterfamilias,” assigned the father of a family absolute control over his wife and children. The Talmud, on the other hand, declares that “a person may not make an eruv for his adult son or daughter, nor for his Jewish manservant or maidservant, nor for his wife, except with their consent.”

That consent, however, does not have to be explicit. “What does ‘except with their consent’ mean?” the Gemara asks and replies, “That they were quiet.” In other words, if a husband enters into an eruv, it will bind his wife as well, unless she specifically raises an objection to it. If, however, she makes an eruv of her own, she can keep it and does not have to defer to her husband’s.

What’s more, when it comes to very young children, the mother’s eruv actually prevails over the father’s. Say that a child’s “father made an eruv for him to the north,” extending his range 2,000 amot in that direction, while “his mother made an eruv for him to the south.” In this case, the child automatically belongs within its mother’s eruv, on the principle that “even a child in his sixth year prefers the company of his mother.”

Indeed, the Talmud has a touching and pragmatic rule for determining whether a child qualifies as “very young” and thus continues to be a legal dependent of its mother. If a child wakes up crying “Mother,” Rabbi Simon ben Lakish holds, he is considered to be “very young.” But wait, the Gemara objects, surely even an older child still sometimes wakes up needing his mother? Better to modify the rule: Only a child who wakes up crying not just “ima” but “ima, ima”—that is, who keeps calling his mother until she comes—is considered very young. In this way, a fairly dry legal discussion manages to include a vivid picture of Jewish family life and a tender understanding of children’s needs.

The next item on the agenda is how much food is required to make an eruv. As we’ve seen earlier, to legally shift one’s Shabbat residence, and thus shift the area in which one can walk on Shabbat, one must deposit a certain amount of food at the site where the residence is to take effect. As a rule of thumb, this is “food for two meals for each and every person” who participates in the eruv. Immediately, the Mishnah sees a complication: Does this mean the amount you would eat in two weekday meals, or in two Shabbat meals? Rabbi Meir holds that a Jew eats more on Shabbat than during the week, because the food is generally better. On the other hand, Rabbi Yehudah holds the opposite, that a Jew eats less on Shabbat, because he wants to preserve his appetite for the third Shabbat meal.

Either way, the Mishnah decides, “both intend to rule leniently”: One must deposit two small meals’ worth, whether one believes the small meal comes during the week or on Shabbat. The rabbis go on to translate this vague description into concrete quantities, using a rather bewildering variety of Talmud-era measurements of both money and volume, e.g., “The quantity of bread necessary for an eruv is a loaf that is purchased for a pundyon when four se’ah of grain are purchased for a sela.”

Later in the chapter, the rabbis turn to another dilemma. What happens when there are two adjoining courtyards or chatzeirot that have failed to create an eruv, and there is an area in between them—say, a yard or gallery? The common area can’t be used by both courtyards, since they have not merged; so how do we decide which courtyard gets control of it? The answer, as so often in the Talmud, is a pragmatic one: Whichever courtyard has easier access to the common area gets to use it. The Gemara runs through a long list of possible cases, considering what happens if an area is accessible by a door or by dropping or throwing things onto it (as with a roof or balcony).

And what if there is a cistern or well between the two chatzeirot? Here the rabbis deliberately adopt a more lenient policy. It is permitted for each courtyard to draw water from the well if they install a notional divider—a strip of reeds that runs across the lip of the well or descends into the surface of the water. True, the water itself will still be able to mingle beneath the divider, so it’s possible that residents of one courtyard will draw water that technically belongs to the other courtyard. But, the Gemara explains, “this is a special leniency which the Sages allowed in regard to water.” Probably the rabbis were aware that, if they did not make it easy for people to get water on Shabbat, they would just use the well anyway; and as we have seen before, the rabbis are anxious not to give Jews occasions to sin. Discretion is the better part of valor where the laws are concerned.

Finally, this week’s reading contained an interesting example of how the rabbis thought about wealth and material prosperity. On one occasion, we learn in Eruvin 85b, a rich man named Boonyas ben Boonyas came to visit Rebbi, who greeted him with the words, “Make room for the man of a hundred maneh.” (A maneh is a sum of money equal to 10,000 zuz—in other words, Boonyas was worth a bundle.) Then a second visitor came, who was much better dressed than Boonyas, and Rebbi greeted him with the words, “Make room for the man of two hundred maneh.”

When someone objected that, in fact, Boonyas was by far the wealthier of the two—“this man’s father owns a thousand ships at sea and … a thousand cities on land”—Rebbi responded that, in that case, Boonyas should dress the part: “Do not send him before me wearing these clothes.” A rich person, the rabbis believed, should conduct himself accordingly, since wealth deserved respect: “Akiva would show respect to wealthy people.” But riches only mattered, the Gemara goes on to explain, because they enabled the rich to help care for the poor: “When there are kindness and ample provisions [for the poor], this preserves the world.” Clearly, the Jewish admiration for philanthropy goes back a long way.


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Adam Kirsch is a poet and literary critic, whose books include The People and the Books: 18 Classics of Jewish Literature.

Adam Kirsch is a poet and literary critic, whose books include The People and the Books: 18 Classics of Jewish Literature.